Why You Need to Break the Writing Process Down

has written 621 posts on Storyfix.com.

You can follow Larry on Twitter, or Google+.

Email the author

by Larry Brooks on July 4, 2009

Check out my guest post today on www.WriteToDone.com.

And if you’ve come here from there… welcome!

I think all teachings about writing are good.  Wonderful, in fact.  Taken as a whole, the body of knowledge kicking around out there is astounding, and because there are so many views on so many of the variables that comprise the creative process, in the end the writer gets to decide what works for them and what doesn’t.

Next time you go to a writing workshop, notice how the topics break down into bite-size segments, each of which gets the once-over from someone very worthy of dishing it:  How to add tension.  How to impress an agent.  Writing better titles.  Fun with sentence structure.  Tips for better dialogue. Even how to be more creative.

But rarely is the Big Picture of writing stories addressed, including an exploration of what story even is.  (You’d be shocked and dismayed at how many experienced writers aren’t able to articulate or implement an understanding of “story.”)  Rarely do you see how do you write a novel or a screenplay at those workshops.  It sounds too entry-level, too basic.

They assume everybody with an admission ticket has that one nailed.  And everybody doesn’t

Which means — if that’s you — as you listen to How to write a better sex scene, you do so without the valuable context of the Big Picture.  You’ll get something out of it, sure, but too often you’re not sure what to do with it.  If you take that workshop but still don’t know how to write a story, you’ll end up with a broken story with a great sex scene in it.

It’s like trying to build a car from scratch and taking a seminar on how to repair your brakes, when you’re not sure how the brake system interfaces with the brake pedal, or even why the brakes are necessary.  It’s easy with cars, but with storytelling… not so much.

Writing saleable novels and screenplays is like that.  Do you need to master the parts?  Absolutely yes.  Do you need to understand how the parts relate to each other?  Of course you do.  Do you need to wrap your head around how to make the collective gathering of those parts into something beautiful, a whole in excess the sum of the parts?  Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it. 

But that workshop isn’t out there.  Neither is the book.  Not really.  I’ve talked to students that after three decades of reading how-to books and going to workshops, their vision of that “collective whole” is still baffling to them.  I read their manuscripts — and that includes my own — and realize that certain basic engine parts are missing, or they’re in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. 

The overwhelmingly common trait among unpublished manuscripts is that lack of big picture context that disempowers a relationship between the parts.  Bland ideas with great characters.  Great potential characters rendered one dimensionally.  Stories without theme, or too many themes.  Stories told without strutuce and pace.  Out of whack scenes.  Pedestrian writing.  Any one of these can kill your story.

 That’s precisely why all novels and screenplays don’t get sold, despite perhaps being technically sound.  Because it’s art, and art cannot be quantified or templated.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. 

Trust me, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer learned their respective games from the inside out.  Stroke by stroke.  Move by move.  Until one day the parts melded and became technical perfection.  But even then, it took years of honing and growing and further melding before their swings turned them into the Stephen Kings of their sports.

Short metaphoric example: my computer monitor likes to freeze up, go blank, then return as a mash of visual distortion.  Then it flashes a distorted little window telling me, basically, that I’m screwed.  I have to power down and reboot the thing, all right in the middle of writing something that had found its rhythm.  So, once back online, I begin to research the problem.  The “help desks” — perhaps the most ironicaly misnamed entities in all of computerdom — all profess a solution, using jargon like this: driver, register, cache, IP address, server, bios, FTP, SML, RDF, RSS, SGML, SQL and about a thousand other obscure terms.  Do I know what these mean?  Sometimes.   A few of them.  Have I “mastered” any of them?  What does that even mean? 

They assume I have the right contextual understanding to fix my monitor.  But I don’t.  So I just keep rebooting.  And at the end of the day, I’ll have to hire someone to replace the requisite driver necessary to repair the problem… which, I came to realize, is not an issue with the monitor at all, but with the underlying software.  Or, in more writerly terms, with the Big Picture.

That’s what writers face.  Tons of information about the parts.  An assumption that we understand what they all mean and how they all relate to each other.  A lack of Big Picture context.  An uncertainty about how to connect the parts, or even what those parts are and the criteria for them.

The magic pill isn’t out there, folks.  We still have to perfect our swings the best way we can, and then practice them until our dangling participles fall off.

I have something to offer you in this regard.  It’s called The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.  It’s a story development and process model.  It’s a Big Picture analysis of the parts and how they relate.  It delivers solid criteria for each.  It shows you what to write, how to write it, what will make it work, and why it’ll work.

It can’t give you the artistic sensibility required to sell it.  Or the dumb luck that springs from dauntless perseverance.  But it can give you some tools you’ll find nowhere else, at least that I’ve ever come across, and along with thousands of writing students who say this is what will finally liberate them from the bondage of writing outside of the context of the Big Picture.

All I can deliver here on Storyfix are chunks of that Big Picture, one exciting possiblity at a time.  But soon it’ll all come together, not only as a collective archive that blankets the Big Picture, but as a book.  Until then, keep writing — I shall — and just as important, keep reading about writing.

Hey, if you discover even one tiny criteria you’ve been missing — perhaps the one that will put you into the game – then both of us will have won the day.

{ 3 comments }

Mary E. Ulrich July 8, 2009 at 1:23 am

I’m a big picture kind of person. I wrote a lovely short story, but the editor suggested I triple the size because shorts don’t sell. I have been stuck every since. Like your analogy, I’ve been tinkering with the engine, the brakes, the heater–but do not have a good handle on the BIG picture. All suggestions welcome.

Larry July 9, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Mary — the longer the story, the more the need for story architecture there is. My only suggestion is the obvious one, because there isn’t a magic pill for this: read novels with a view toward seeing the inherent structure of it, and then juxtapose what you see against standard story architecture (read “Screenplay” by Syd Field for a great intro and definition; the structure for novelists is basically the same, only spread out and much less rigid).

Hope this helps.

sandra March 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Thank-you sir ,somehow Iv’e allways known since i was twelve yr’s old its allways been about the bigger picture , I like poetry mostly ,although my kids think I should write books, can a poet wrrite a book , I love books . I like to feal and since what people are thinking , I would love to write a book on the Question? what do you think By Sandra Kay Bratcher. sounds cool , write back I would love your insight . Sincerly Sandra

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: